What is the Speed of Your Layout? – Part 2, Operation by Gravity?

In Part 1 I described the concept and construction of my layout. Now, how to make it work?

My original idea was to have the layout tilted slightly at an angle, as the Earth is tilted on its axis. A train would start out on the low side of the tilt and once it had climbed a certain distance up the “hill” the layout would turn on its own and the train would stay in one place. This proved impossible to execute. The train would climb and, as expected, reach a point where gravity took over. The layout would gather so much momentum that it spun the train around backwards to the down slope of the “hill”. This repeated surging was not pleasing to watch.

I decided that I needed a motor drive to turn the layout at a constant speed. Scrounging through the small motor bin at Princess Auto I found the solution. It was a 12-volt motor mounted into a gearbox (about $15). I rigged up a mechanism to mount the motor on the tripod shaft just beneath the bottom of the hollow centre core. This device doubles as the mounting platform for the electrical contacts described above. I cut the bottom off a metal coffee can and hot glued the resulting tube around the base of the hollow centre core of the layout. This particular coffee can was made with several grooves molded into its circumference which formed perfect pulleys. I then positioned a rubber drive belt around the coffee can “pulley” and the output shaft from the gearbox which, as luck would have it, was knurled and provided good traction. Power for the motor was supplied from the variable DC output of an old model railroad power supply. Here is a close up of the motor and the mechanism to hold the electrical wipers against the turning circuit board disc.

This powered design worked very well – the layout speed could be set to match the speed of the train running in the opposite direction, thus keeping the train in one spot all the time. However, glee quickly turned to disappointment when the two would become unsynchronized in less than a minute. The problem was with subtle variations in the speed of the layout motor as well as that of the train. These variations are not noticeable to the eye, but they exist. To get the desired effect, the speed of the train or of the layout had to be repeatedly adjusted – not much fun doing that all day long at a show! I needed to devise a way to automate the adjustments.

To be continued…

What is the Speed of Your Layout? – Part 1, Concept and Construction

In model railroading articles there are occasional comments about the scale speed of models and people’s perceptions of what best portrays the prototype. A few years ago, I built a layout in which the speed of the train was not the issue as much as the speed of the layout itself. Huh?


My goals for this layout included:

  1. HO scale;
  2. transportable in an SUV;
  3. light weight;
  4. quick setup and take down;
  5. viewing height suitable for all ages;
  6. capable of continuous running at train shows; and,
  7. made from relatively cheap components so if I hit a dead end there wouldn’t be much pain upon throwing it out.

Did I achieve my goals? You be the judge...

The layout was a circular contraption approximately 1 meter (39 inches) in diameter and 60 centimeters (24 inches) high with a central mountain around which there was a circle of HO code 83 Micro Engineering track. The track traversed two wood trestles, one of which spanned a small creek and the other a gorge which was home to an aspen grove. There was a pond, a waterfall and a handful of people, animals and assorted railway debris occupying the scenery.

When operating, the train ran at a constant speed and the layout moved at the same speed but in the opposite direction – causing the train to remain in place and always within sight of the viewer. It would do this for hours on end. This is analogous to walking on a treadmill. I thought this approach would be more interesting at shows than a train running around a stationary circular layout. I always ran the layout with steam locomotives because the motion of the connecting rods and valve gear exhibits more activity than a diesel locomotive which looks rather static, even when running. In this application it was particularly important for viewers to be able to see that the locomotive was running.

Here is a picture of the completed layout operating at a train show:


The layout structure was 100% pink Styrofoam insulation panels roughly carved and hot glued together in layers. It was hollow a few centimeters beneath the surface. The faux-rock surface was a mix of cellulose insulation, wallpaper paste and powdered black clothes dye – this creates an inexpensive grey finish which adheres well to the foam and is easy to paint (kind of a home-made Sculptamold). When it inevitably got knocked during transport no white plaster showed through.

There was a hollow central core inside the Styrofoam, as follows:

Secured into the top of the central core and hidden beneath a removable panel was the rim from a lawn mower wheel which has a very robust and free-spinning ball bearing assembly. The hollow central core accommodates a 2.54-centimeter (1 inch) diameter wood dowel with a spike sticking out the top mounted vertically into a tripod (Figure 3). The entire layout was suspended from the inner race of the ball bearing assembly which sits on the spike. I found the tripod at Canadian Tire – it was intended to support halogen workshop lights, not a layout. The whole lighting fixture/tripod assembly was about $60 on sale.

Setup was very simple: first the tripod with the vertical wood dowel was set up; the layout was then lifted shoulder-high with the hollow core lowered over the dowel; electrical connections are made with quick-connects; finally, black skirting material was mounted around the base to hide the tripod, wiring, etc.

The locomotives I ran on this layout were  all DCC and sound equipped, controlled with a Digitrax Zephyr system. In order to get reliable connectivity from the DCC system to the rails I built a system of stationary wipers mounted on the tripod, just beneath the bottom of the hollow core. The wipers were made from the contacts found in a common household light switch (cheap, sturdy and designed to conduct electricity) which have been affixed to a home-made spring-loaded device to ensure that they make good contact. Hot glued to the bottom of the hollow centre core was a copper-surface circuit board – what one looks like before the copper is etched to create circuits. I cut the circuit board to roughly the dimensions of a DVD disc but with a hole in the middle to accommodate the wood dowel which passed through the disc. Using a Dremel tool to make a circular groove in the copper layer, I created two electrically-independent concentric “tracks” which are soldered to two wires leading to the HO rails. When the layout turns, the copper “tracks” drag across the two electrical contacts thus connecting the DCC controller to the locomotive.

To be continued…

Moose Jaw Train Show - 2019

Following is a selection of photographs of the excellent modelling work on display at the Moose Jaw train show, March 23 & 24, 2019. The show was held at the Western Development Museum, Moose Jaw.

Paint Storage Carousel

During a recent reorganization of my train room and workshop it struck me that I had hobby paint squirrelled away in various places. Consisting of spray cans, acrylics, tiny Testors enamels and paint in tubes, these were on various shelves and drawers. Not only was this lack of storage system inefficient (“where did I put that …?”) but it wasn’t easy to see the various colours in my inventory. Also, my airbrush and its accessories were tucked away in an inconvenient closet. 

Here is a picture of the lack of organization, not including the spray cans and the airbrush and accessories:

I have seen various commercial paint carousels for sale on-line but have not seen one that can accommodate containers as large as spray cans to as small as Testors enamels – and they certainly have no space for airbrush equipment. The solution was to divert my attention away from working on my layout for a few days and make my own custom paint carousel.

I purchased some 19 mm (3/4 in.), 10 mm (3/8 in.) and 6 mm (1/4 in.) plywood; 3 mm (1/8 in.) Masonite hardboard; a couple of European cabinet hinges and a lazy susan bearing. I had determined that a 90 cm (36 in.) height and a 48 cm (19 in.) width would fit nicely under my layout benchwork. The 19 mm plywood comprised the top and bottom of the carousel and the 10 mm plywood served as the sides and the shelf supports. The shelf bottoms were made from the 6 mm plywood and the 3 mm Masonite served as the outer edges of the shelves. After some simple cutting and routing for the shelf supports, I had assembled a simple wooden box with shelves all fastened with wood glue.

One side has small shelves to hold the Testors and other very small containers. Two sides hold the small (2 oz.) and large (8 oz.) acrylic paint containers as well as oil and acrylic paint in tubes. The fourth side holds spray cans.One side is hinged outwards to reveal shelving that can accommodate the airbrush, pump and accessories as well as things like my paint shaker and gouache paint set. I gave it a coat of paint to match the colour of the walls in my train room. I elected not to make a place for paint brushes because I already have these stored in a home-made device which is located on a shelf adjacent to the paint carousel.

Now I can find all my hobby paint easily and in one place and have freed up the various drawers and shelves to be used for squirrelling away other items for which I will no doubt find myself asking the question, “where did I put that …?”.

Richelieu lazy susan bearing (contains a ball bearing race)

hole drilled in base through which the screwdriver could fit in order to fasten the top of the bearing to the underside of the paint carousel